The Top 12 Things to Do in Madison, Wisconsin

Wisconsin State Capitol
DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images

Incorporated in 1856, Wisconsin’s capital city, Madison merges cosmopolitan culture with small-town hospitality and collegiate spirit for a uniquely appealing visitor experience. Along with Seattle, Madison holds the distinction of being one of just two major American cities to be sited on an isthmus. Since it straddles two scenic lakes—Lake Mendota and Lake Monona—water sports, recreation, and great views are a given here. Back on dry land, biking is a favored local pastime, one the city excels at with more than 200 miles of bike lanes and trails.

In addition to the handsome capitol building that serves as the seat of Wisconsin state government, Madison boasts 140 entries on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as the country’s largest grouping of lakefront Native American effigy mound structures.

Here are a dozen suggestions for what you’ll want to do, see, eat, and drink in Madison.

 

01 of 12

Tour the Wisconsin State Capitol

Wisconsin State Capitol

Destination Madison

Address
2 E Main St, Madison, WI 53703, USA
Phone +1 608-266-0382

Created using 43 different types of stone gathered from eight states and six countries, the majestic Wisconsin State Capitol was completed in 1917 to replace the previous capitol building after devastating fire damage. You won’t see any buildings taller than the capitol anywhere in the city—an ordinance prevents it. The soaring 200-foot dome is a real showstopper, featuring a gilded bronze statue topper on the exterior and a lavish mural titled “Resources of Wisconsin” on the ceiling of the interior rotunda. The architecture, furnishings, art, and décor throughout the facility purposefully reflect an eclectic diversity of styles.

The building is open to the public most weekdays, with free tours that lead off from the information desk at designated times during the day. Don’t miss the view from the sixth-floor observation deck, which is open seasonally. Round out your visit with a stroll around Capitol Square to admire the lush landscaping and check out a concert, farmers market, art fair, or other event from a full calendar of summer offerings.  

02 of 12

Jump Into Lakes Mendota and Monona

Exploring the lakes of Madison Wisconsin.

Destination Madison

Or kayak, canoe, sail, fish, paddleboard—you get the idea. Situated on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, Madison definitely doesn’t lack for water recreation. The lakes are a major focal point of the city, and attractions in and of themselves. The larger of the two, Lake Mendota, borders the University of Wisconsin campus and offers year-round fun, including sailings with Betty Lou Cruises. Meanwhile, Lake Monona showcases boats, biergartens, Olbrich Botanical Gardens, the historic Lizard Effigy Mound, and a stunning view of the Wisconsin State Capitol.

The Isthmus Paddle and Portage boat race connects the two bodies of water, drawing crowds of festive costumed participants and observers each summer. The curvilinear Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center has become a beloved gathering spot since it opened in 1997. Looking for a new activity to try? Make like a lumberjack and test your skills at Madison Log Rolling on Lake Wingra just southwest of downtown. 

03 of 12

Explore Madison's 200-Plus Miles of Bike Trails and Lanes

Biking in Madison Wisconsin

Destination Madison

Madison maintains more than 200 miles of trails, paths, and dedicated bike lanes to explore on two wheels. In fact, Madison brags on having more bikes than cars, and is one of just four U.S. cities to achieve Platinum status recognition from the League of American Bicyclists. Loop around Lake Monona starting from Olin Park, or spot some local wildlife along the UW-Madison Arboretum Trail. Winters don’t have to disrupt your ride—just break out the fat tires and you’ll be fine. BYO bike, or borrow a set of wheels from any of the 40-plus Madison BCycle urban bikeshare stations strategically positioned all over the isthmus.

04 of 12

Taste the Local Flavors

National Mustard Museum in Middleton Wisconsin

Destination Madison

With all that exercise, you’re sure to work up an appetite. Friday night fish fry is a Wisconsin tradition across the state, and you can try it for yourself at a number of restaurants and pubs, including Dotty Dumpling's Dowry and R. P. Adler's Pub & Grill. More than 50 years old and still going strong, Madison hosts the annual World Dairy Expo, one of the largest trade shows in the world. In keeping with Wisconsin’s dairy reputation, the University of Wisconsin produces its very own line of signature ice cream. Order some in a cup or cone at the Daily Scoop inside the Memorial Union on campus.

If cheese is more your jam, beeline to Fromagination on Capitol Square to nosh on a dizzying selection of artisanal Wisconsin products. Then cruise to Middleton just beyond the city limits to sample the sweet and spicy wares from a 6,000-plus product collection at the quirky National Mustard Museum. Still hungry? Try a little bit of everything on a curated food tour of the city through Madison Eats.

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05 of 12

Sample Madison's Craft Brew Scene

You’ll need something to drink, and what goes better with cheese and mustard than beer? Madison excels at craft beer with busy local operations brewing up a storm. IPAs, porters, stouts, lagers, sours—the gang’s all here. There’s a strong group of contenders to check out, but Ale Asylum, Capital Brewery, New Glarus, Karben4 Brewing, and Funk Factory Geuzeria consistently tend to rise to the top of many best-of lists.

06 of 12

Visit Downtown Madison's Art Museums

Chazen Museum of Art

Destination Madison

Part of the UW campus, the Chazen Museum of Art is the second largest repository of fine art in Wisconsin, and the largest collecting museum in the Big Ten Conference. Within these airy 176,000 square-foot confines, visitors can spend a day appreciating more than 23,000 works of art spanning Greek, Western European, Soviet Union, Indian, Japanese, and modern African collections. Best of all, admission is free.

Keep the art vibes flowing by visiting another free attraction, the highly modern Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, on nearby State Street.

07 of 12

Stop to Smell the Flowers at Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Courtesy of Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Address
3330 Atwood Ave, Madison, WI 53704, USA
Phone +1 608-246-4550

Olbrich Botanical Gardens maintains 16 acres of verdant property to explore, as well as a tropical conservatory that contains free-flying birds and a waterfall. (If you can time your visit between July and August, you’ll get to experience the ethereal annual Blooming Butterflies as well.) A soothing oasis in the heart of the city, the outdoor gardens offer inspiration for green thumbs and a true breath of fresh air, populated with perennials, annuals, herbs, wildflowers, and native plants. Don’t miss the Thai Pavilion and Garden, gifted by the King of Thailand himself and one of just four such structures in the country.

08 of 12

Feel Like a Kid Again at the Madison Children's Museum

Address
100 N Hamilton St, Madison, WI 53703, USA
Phone +1 608-256-6445

If you’ve got little ones along for the trip, let them play like they mean it at the Madison Children’s Museum. A former department store, the building’s distinctive façade sets the tone for visits defined by whimsical exhibits that feed the imagination and encourage active exploration. A few of the more intriguing areas include the Frank Lloyd Wright-dedicated Coops to Cathedrals section, a Trash Lab that shines a light on recycling and reusable materials, and the STEM-focused Possible-opolis. Fun fact: The rooftop garden nurtures more than 300 vegetable and herb varieties, and houses chickens that lay 1,400 eggs annually.

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09 of 12

Step Back in Time at the Wisconsin Historical Museum

Address
30 N Carroll St, Madison, WI 53703, USA
Phone +1 608-264-6555

One of 12 sites managed by the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Wisconsin Historical Museum traces the proud past of the state’s history and heritage through intriguing exhibitions and displays. It touches on everything from Native Nations and Tribes, frontier life, and Hmong immigration to aspects of industry, democracy, and community. This is a great immersive one-stop shop to learn about all things Wisconsin, curated from a collection of more than 110,000 historical objects and 500,000 archaeological artifacts.

10 of 12

Walk on the Wild Side at Henry Vilas Zoo

Henry Vilas Zoo

Destination Madison

Address
702 S Randall Ave, Madison, WI 53715, USA
Phone +1 608-266-4732

Lions and tigers and bears—oh my! Embark on an animal adventure at the Henry Vilas Zoo on the shoreline of Lake Wingra. Boasting free admission, this cherished Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited attraction has been a local landmark since it opened in 1911. The facility stays open year-round, housing everything from aardvarks to zebras in well-kept habitats.

11 of 12

Learn Something New and Something Old at the Geology Museum

Address
1215 W Dayton St, Madison, WI 53706-1600, USA

Got a dinosaur buff in your midst? Located in Weeks Hall, the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum has grown since its founding in 1848 into a vast and fascinating repository of geological and paleontological artifacts. Shedding light on the state’s earliest origins, noteworthy holdings include dinosaurs, fish, birds, reptiles, mammals, and all manner of fossils to observe and appreciate. The twice-monthly Museum Storytime makes the visit fun for the littlest guests.

12 of 12

Cheer on the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium

Iowa v Wisconsin
Quinn Harris / Getty Images
Address
1440 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711-2051, USA
Phone +1 608-262-1866

If you’re visiting Madison during college football season, you must add a game day at Camp Randall Stadium to your to-do list. Home field of the University of Wisconsin Badgers since 1895 and the oldest stadium in the Big Ten Conference, this storied outdoor facility hosts a lineup of games in the fall, along with a calendar of other events throughout the rest of the year. The stadium is named after the Union Army training grounds on which it now makes its permanent home. If you go, don your Badger cardinal red and white, and plan to get loud.

Article Sources
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  1. City of Madison. "Platinum Biking City Planning Committee."

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The Top 12 Things to Do in Madison, Wisconsin